Battery technology needs breakthrough for electric vehicle sales to amp up

TORONTO — Widespread use of electric vehicles and plugging in, instead of fuelling up, could just be a dream until a breakthrough is made in battery technology.

A recent study by the Boston Consulting Group has concluded that until there is advancement in the battery market, the cost of an electric vehicle will be too high to encourage widespread consumer buy-in.

The group’s report, Batteries for Electric Cars: Challenges, Opportunities and the Outlook to 2020, was written with the help of more than 50 interviews with battery suppliers, automotive OEMs, university researchers, start-up companies working on leading-edge battery technologies, and government agencies across Asia, the U.S. and western Europe.

The technology today consists mainly of lithium-ion batteries. While there are a handful of different chemical combinations, the most prominent technology in automotive applications is lithium-nickel-cobalt-aluminum (NCA).

Competing technologies compete in six different categories: safety, life span (number of charge cycles and battery age), performance, specific energy, specific power, and cost. Currently no single battery rises above the rest in every category and high performance in one category usually comes at a compromise to another category.

“Any player that succeeds in breaking some of the inherent compromises among current technologies will gain significant advantage in the marketplace,” says the report.

Current batteries can be optimized for high or low temperatures, but not both. Because climate-specific batteries would prevent a vehicle’s mobility, OEMs are more likely to stay in the middle range and accept a performance disadvantage or higher overall system costs in order to avoid such restrictions, notes the report.

Driving range is also a big snag right now. Vehicle driving range of electric vehicles on a full charge is still about 250 to 300 km.

Of course, when it comes to consumer products, cost is a big driving factor.

The U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium has set a cost target of $250 kWh. Most sources for the report, estimate the current cost of an automotive battery at between $1000 – $1200 kWh (in comparison, consumer batteries cost about $250 – $400 per kWh). That’s a fairly sizeable decline in cost.

“Given the current technology options, we see substantial challenges to achieving this goal by 2020,” notes the report.

However, the report also notes that about 70 percent of cell costs and 75 percent of battery pack costs are volume dependent, effectively creating a cost “glass floor” for current battery technology.

As a result, in the research community instead of finding new chemical compounds that might work better, the focus has been on finding new electrochemical mechanisms that might boost the specific energy and performance of future batteries.

“Patent filings related to energy storage increased 17 percent per year from 1999 through 2008, twice as fast as during the previous 10 years and some 10 percentage points faster than overall patent growth during the same period,” notes the study.

A lot of time and effort is being invested, but it still could be a lot of time before we see a real breakthrough in the consumer market.

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